Charting A Course Through Alaska With The Toyota FJ62 Land Cruiser
Photography by John Montesi
This is a continuation of a longer series documenting my dog Hank and I’s road trip from Texas to Alaska. To catch up, check out the first three installments: Texas to Colorado, Utah to Vancouver, and through British Colombia to Alaska.
Whitehorse is the only census-designated city in the Yukon Territory, and approaching it from the Cassiar Highway means it first appears as a widening, high-quality road; a mirage after days of driving on unimproved two-lanes through thick woods and sparsely-populated townships. There is a final bend before a downhill stretch reveals the town nestled in a curve of the Yukon River in a basin of mountains. Civilization is welcoming and beautiful after so much time without it, and the scale and solitude of Whitehorse feels monumental when reached by car.
We arrived around nine at night and Hank and I promptly found a pet-friendly motel, went for a late run along the river to stretch our road-weary legs, and ate a falafel wrap on a patio while the sun lazily set just after midnight. Capped off with a hot shower, the day ended with a level of luxury that was overwhelming made possible by an exhaustion that was absolute.
I spent a few nights there, and the Yukon welcomed me with days of sunshine and social nights at local watering holes, exploratory bike rides (with bear warnings of course), and coffee shops with great brew and enough connectivity to check in with the outside world.
Almost immediately, I felt as though I could stay here. Like many early gold rushers, I could understand the appeal of settling in the first hospitable place I came across after so much time warring with the elements. A routine, 87 octane gasoline, warm bar stools, and two grocery stores felt like all the trappings of a successful life, while the wilderness was always just around the corner, lurking ominously on every foray away from the heart of town. It was an intoxicating blend of cosmopolitan and rugged isolation, and it wasn’t until I sat on my second morning and studied the map that I remembered my goal of reaching Alaskan coastline. I took in a deep breath to prepare for the final push.
The Alaskan border with Yukon was a very long day’s drive away, and Anchorage another day beyond that. My third and final morning in Whitehorse, the weather took a turn toward the autumnal, and it was clear that I had to keep moving lest I become too trapped by the change of seasons. I drank heartily on coffee and piled my clean, unfolded laundry in the trunk beside my sleeping bag, and set course for Tok, Alaska.
The drive revealed that we were approaching as the geography and scenery intensified. The town of Whitehorse quickly yielded to utter desolation, and we curled around a massive lake with feature names like “Destruction Bay.” The frost heaves in the road revealed that we were now truly north, and the Toyota lurched and bobbed and did its best airborne sand dune bro impressions over the massive pavement buckles that were often invisible in the low-contrast afternoon light.
Then the rain came. It poured at a constant rate, and we drove for hours in plummeting temperatures and pummeling rain. I pulled out my warmest jacket and watched the kilometers to the International Border steadily decrease despite the conditions, until we reached the last fuel stop before the drive into America once more.
The final twenty minutes were agonizing, in the sea of trees and rain, and I yearned for the nationalistic comfort of reaching the beginning of my massive destination. We eventually stopped at the official border, which was marked by a tourist-pleasing sign and a row of felled trees that followed the map line as far as the eye could see. It made a powerful visual impression, and I wondered at anyone who ever made it here before the automobile.
The border crossing itself was uneventful, though the car in front of us was turned around for reasons I did not ask about. A massive crow landed on the hood of the Land Cruiser, which added to the somber mood set by the weather. We drove onward, into the still-falling rain and still aimed towards Tok, where I managed to find a log cabin that would take Hank and I in out of the brutal cold.
We were in Alaska, with one bar of AT&T cell signal, eight hours from Whitehorse and six hours from Anchorage. The eastern border was more a starting than a finishing line. A welcome to a land I knew nothing about, a challenge to see it all and to switch my narrative from “on the way” to “here for a while.” The night was cozy and dry, we woke up refreshed even from a relatively short night’s rest, ate some free packaged donuts from the cabin office, and then hit the road for Anchorage.
A few hours into the drive, the landscape transformed into the Alaska of the imagination. Glaciers teased along the horizon, mountains snow-capped from the night’s storm climbed into the newly-blue sky, Dall’s sheep ran along rocky ridges five hundred feet above the road. The cold, wet night brought autumn to life across Alaska. Marshes and streams overflowed, birds made their southward gathering calls, and the last of the summer vacationers straggled around the few roadside RV parks. A distant glacier stopped me in my tracks every time it appeared from the road, until finally we passed a hand-painted sign that said “GLACIER” with an arrow. I jammed on the brakes, made a two-point U-Turn, and followed a dirt road several miles to a small gate house and then on to the edge of the Matanuska Glacier, where Hank promptly imitated a penguin and I walked out onto the ice, experiencing the awe that yesterday’s rainy border crossing lacked. Out on the glacier, we were finally there.
We rolled into Anchorage late in the evening—the midnight sun still high above though—and settled in for a stay in town to recollect ourselves and study the map more closely, to decide where to hike and bike and where we might see salmon spawning and eagles soaring and what to do before leaving the southern coast for the northern. Conversations in coffee shops and breweries revealed a rich urban life all its own in Alaska’s most prominent city, and made it clear that our next destination was the Kenai Peninsula, a geographical feature the size of many American states that contains the most accessible wealth of coastal Alaskan beauty. We took off towards Kenai, Seward, and Homer, zig-zagging across the peninsula, meeting and re-meeting people at local bars and hangouts who seemed to be making similar trips from very different places.
There was the Brazilian family who shared pizza and beer in Anchorage and wine in Seward a week later, the real-life characters behind Deadliest Catch on the spit in Homer, bald eagles and salmon and close calls with bears, a frigid day spent in a drift boat on the Kenai River, and an even longer day cruising the coast exploring Kenai Fjords National Park and its overwhelming population of whales, puffins, seals, sea lions, and tidewater glaciers. The people and places of Alaska exist among a level of nature that is utterly overwhelming. And the Land Cruiser settled into its surroundings with aplomb, finding many distant, rustier cousins parked on Main Streets or ambling through the woods in search of spiritual and physical sustenance.
Seward’s urban brewery overlooks Resurrection Bay, its placid sunset waters disturbed by the thousands of silver salmon jumping as night falls. While there, I ate gourmet pizza that would rank highly in the Lower 48, and I talked with a man who had just moved to Seward from Anchorage to further his electrician education at a trade school. He explained that Anchorage is “fifteen minutes away from Alaska,” and after spending a week there, I knew exactly what he meant. He spoke of a recent break-up which gutted him and asked vulnerable questions about my own experience and what my prognosis was for his life. He then handed me a phone number on a napkin and told me to call his brother if I wished to go out on a fishing boat.
“If not,” he said as he shook my hand, “have a nice life.”
Resurrection Bay is ringed by lush green cliffs and snow-covered mountains. The starting line for the Iditarod sled dog race is in the heart of downtown. The local watering hole hosts Wednesday night karaoke, and my name is now signed on a Brazilian two-dollar-bill that hangs among thousands of other bills on the walls. While I was there, the bartender left his post to cover Metallica and Jamey Johnson, and two old women sang a duet of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” that tore down the house and took my mind a million different places while I fixed a blank gaze on the old-timey lifesaver ring affixed to a post in the center of the packed room. I thought about the fact that Willie Nelson, famous denizen of my now-former-home of Austin, wrote that song before anyone knew his name. That Patsy had died in a plane crash when she was barely older than I am now, unmarried and a victim of her own fame and the trappings that brings. That I had a well-worn copy of Red Headed Stranger in my ten-disc soundtrack that had carried me from Austin to Seward, and that just as I’d felt many other times along the way, I was a few happenings away from setting up comfortable residence in yet another town that felt a million miles from anywhere else and had enough richness in its few thousand residents and millions of surrounding acres to last a lifetime.
I drove from the bar to our meager hostel up the highway, and fell into a fitful, chilly sleep beside my warm, furry companion Hank. The next day would take us back to Anchorage and then northward into The Interior, a land which would make the dotted fishing towns of the Alaskan Coast look tropical and cosmopolitan by comparison. The roads there promised to make the slow, thirsty old truck out front look like a wise choice. And so, we both kicked fitfully in our sleep all night, like two kids ready for Christmas morning, the gift of anticipation.